How to recruit the next generation of enterprise UX designers - with Uday Gajendar

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 12, 2016
A year ago, Uday Gajendar published an influential post on enterprise UX. I spoke with him to learn the story behind the post, and what he calls the "wicked craft" of enterprise UX. Gajendar also shared how he gets the next generation of designers interested in enterprise UX - in the face of the seductive power of the consumer tech startup.

On the hunt for fresh ideas on enterprise UX, I found Why I design enterprise UX, and you should too!. I'm not the only one; though the post is a year old, UX designer and consultant Uday Gajendar continues to get plenty of social feedback.

That's fine by him - turns out Gajendar is part of the organizing team for the upcoming Enterprise UX show (June 2016, San Antonio) - so he's looking to spark others. As for me, Gajendar's post stood out because instead of flowery design utopia, Gajendar grappled with enterprisey issues like data models and domain expertise.

This is in keeping with what Gajendar calls the wicked craft of enterprise UX. The wickedness is the design constraints, whether its security, compliance, or data models. The craft is overcoming those constraints with elegant designs, and - more importantly - effective design collaboration. Gajendar's long game? Empower a "maker" culture that overcomes analysis paralysis, turning "cynical stakeholders" into creative participants who can "imagine new possibilities they could not have done by themselves."

During a wide-ranging chat, I found out how Gajendar acquired his enterprise UX sensibilities. We talked about teaching enterprise UX to the next generation, and what it takes to recruit young designers into enterprise UX roles. We also talked about how shipping "minimum viable products" - now more popular in the enterprise - doesn't mean serving up a crappy UX.

Jon Reed: What have you learned since your blog last January? Any interesting feedback?

Uday Gajendar: Oh, yeah! It still surprises me that almost a year later, this post gets still so much traffic and retweets and so forth.

Reed: Why do you think that is?

Gajendar: I think it's because the ideas in the post are foundational as we think about enterprise UX. I get feedback from folks who are working at small startups, but I also hear from people who are working at big shops like Oracle and SAP. They are tackling the same problems. It might be something like insurance processing that sounds really dry and tedious. But they're trying to rethink it from a UX standpoint.

Reed: We've reached the point where enterprise UX is validated, but folks are hungry for ideas on better approaches.

Gajendar: Right. It's great to see affirmation the ideas I presented resonate with a wide group of people who are tackling these same problems, and not just in Silicon Valley. It might be someone in Kansas or Europe or South America - it's the same challenges.

Reed: You've worked as an enterprise UX Director with CloudPhysics, five years at Citrix, and you also did UX work with Adobe. Is that as far back as it goes?

Gajendar: Actually, my background at enterprise UX started in 2001 at Oracle on the E-Business Suite, and then I went to BEA Systems.

Reed: You were really ahead of the curve on enterprise UX, then.

Gajendar: Yes (laughs) - way back when. At Oracle, I was always kind of the rebel. I just mocked up my own concepts, asking "Why can't you make things beautiful and elegant?" I got chastised by my manager because I didn't follow procedures - but whatever. It's okay.

Recruiting the next generation of enterprise UX talent

Uday Gajendar

Reed: When you teach enterprise UX to students, do you encounter some of the same "ugly enterprise" perceptions?

Gajendar: Oh, yes. I certainly get skeptical looks and chuckles and so forth. I get it - I've been there myself.

Reed: So where are you teaching?

Gajendar: I teach a "Founder's Overview for UX" course at the Women's Startup Lab. I also teach interaction design at CCA (California College of the Arts) on occasion. In 2016, I will be getting more involved with Carnegie Mellon University's M-HCI Capstone project (Master's in Human-Computer Interaction).

Reed: And what is your message to students about enterprise UX?

Gajendar: I'm trying to do my part to encourage them, similar to my Medium essay. I want them to become part of the enterprise UX revolution, if you will, and not just make another pizza delivery app.

Reed: It's pretty easy to languish in these massive consumer app stores. I like your chances more in the enterprise, honestly - if you set your mind to it.

Gajendar: Yes! Though there is a learning curve.

Reed: And how do you frame that?

Gajendar: The main point I try to hit upon is that with enterprise UX, it involves a tremendous amount of complexity. In turn, that requires a certain amount of intellectual agility because there is so much sophisticated language and terminology and concepts, At first, it can be very difficult to understand.

At the same time, I convey to them that there is a tremendous opportunity: enterprise UX does not have to be boring, difficult, or ugly. Thanks to the iPhone, thanks to Tesla, thanks to Nest, and these other nuanced consumer products, the expectations are now transferring over from consumer to enterprise. I tell students: "If you have the intellectual curiosity and stamina, and you have the rigor to deeply understand something that's very complex, it can be very rewarding." If you're clever enough, you will find opportunities to instill a sense of beauty through that experience.

My message is: we can do it. The resources and support for UX is there. And: I think the big folks who write the checks are getting the picture now.

Reed: But the allure of Facebook-style consumer startups must be strong.

Gajendar: Oh sure. If I'm 20 years old, and you can become a unicorn billionaire with the next Instagram or the next Twitter, it's very tantalizing and exciting. Seductive is probably the right word. But I keep showing them examples of the work that I've done, where I did introduce ideas of beauty, elegance, harmony - really compelling user experience that looks good, and still work well.

Reed: Have you recruited or converted a student into enterprise UX?

Gajendar: When I was at Citrix, I played a major role in recruiting because of my connection with Carnegie Mellon and CCA and so forth. We ended up getting quite a few recruits out of design schools who had offers at the big consumer companies. One person had an offer from Microsoft, and they were doing cool stuff with Metro and Windows Phone. She came to join us at Citrix. She's having a fantastic time and hasn't regretted it.

We had another person, a General Assembly grad. Her background was straight-up graphic design illustration. I did a guest lecture, and I relayed the same points I just mentioned to you. In fact, I went further and suggested if you're coming out of a program, it's better to do it at an established institution with a large corporate department, because you have the resources to help nurture, mentor and grow at least three or four years. After that, then you're ready to go to a startup, which is the wild west.

Why UX is changing the minimum viable product (MVP)

Reed: One of the big changes I'm seeing is how enterprise UX is changing the notion of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Enterprises might think they are doing the right thing by getting the product into the hands of stakeholders early, but if the UX sucks, it's going to backfire in lack of adoption. I recently wrote about my visit with Infor's data science lab, where they share MVP-style products with customers, but designs from their Hook & Loop agency are included from the earliest iterations. Do you see a similar trend?

Gajendar: Exactly. I saw this nice cartoon somebody posted on LinkedIn. It was like a little comic showing the pathway of a good MVP versus a bad MVP. The bad MVP is something kind of thrown together, whereas the good MVP was showing a roller skate moving up to a skateboard, moving up to one of those scooter things, moving up to a bicycle. Every single step has value and UX impact that makes it desirable.

I ran into this issue at CloudPhysics. When I walked in, I looked at the product and realized that the engineering team had production-coded the wire frame. There was no real design, per se, no end-to-end user experience, and no visual design. We had to change that.

Whereas at Citrix, I was able to incorporate design elements from the get-go, even as we were talking to users and thinking about the customer journey. We did modeling on the whiteboard, architecture diagrams - all of that kind of stuff. We created high-fidelity mock-ups and worked with the engineering team to build that out. That led to some good successes with users.

Reed: Which is way better than taking a concept out on sales calls.

Gajendar: Right. The other product was just very primitive. It looked unfinished. It didn't look like a real product. Still, the sales team were giving demos with the unfinished product.

Reed: Which sets entirely the wrong tone with prospects.

Gajendar: Yes. We got to a place where it was much more polished, and it looked presentable. We got tremendous feedback from folks who are early adopters saying, "Wow, this looks like a real product now."

Reed: UX is changing fast eh?

Gajendar: I think it's still a wild frontier of enterprise UX; we're just scratching the surface. Maybe my essay encouraged folks to come out of the woodwork because they're kind of hidden, maybe a little embarrassed to be working on these old school legacy apps. But we're starting to recognize there is value and purpose to tackling these problems. It's great to see that.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing series on enterprise UX. Gajendar and I had an interesting debate on the role of "beauty" in enterprise UX design - I'll share that in a future installment.

Disclosure - Infor is a diginomica premier partner. Diginomica has no financial ties to Uday Gajendar or the Enterprise UX conference.

Image credit - Jigsaw puzzle recruiting new staff. A successful team recruiting new staff like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. © emerge

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